Afghanistan: A Perpetual Geopolitical Battleground

Mountain and a tank in the foreground
Credit: Davric, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

At the heart of the historic silk road, a crucial dynamic transformation is taking place. After the two-decades-long tiresome conflict, the United States of America is finally pulling out from Afghanistan before the symbolic date of upcoming Sept. 11, the day Al Qaeda attacked the world trade center and Pentagon in 2001. The withdrawal of forces aligns with the landmark agreement signed on Feb. 29, last year with the Taliban movement in Doha. Varying questions are erupting from different corners of the world about the benefits reaped by this protracted war, which culminated in the loss of 2,40,000 lives and costing more than two trillion dollars. While the decision to evacuate the troops is a positive gesture, the long-term peace and stability depend upon the foreign policy and diplomatic initiatives of the countries in the region.

It all started when the United States and its allies militarily intervened in Afghanistan citing the Taliban’s refusal to hand over Usama Bin Laden, who was allegedly responsible for the attacks on Sept. 11. But the real intention of invasion was far beyond defeating a local insurgency or destroying ‘terrorists’ with global networks. Throughout history, divergent rationales tempted the empires and powerful nations to conquer the landlocked country that is composed of treacherous mountain ranges and rough terrain.

Since the Tsardom of Peter the Great, the Russian Empire attempted to expand its territory as far as the shores of the Arabian Sea to loosen the shackles of geographic isolation that the country faced due to its frozen and unnavigable ports. Because of this dilemma, the empire was cut off significantly from the global trade opportunities. Though many wars have been fought in this regard, the Russian quest for access to the warm sea never materialized. In the first half of the 19th century, there was a surge in Russian-Afghan relations. Fearing consequences of this progressive Russian dominance and further setbacks, Britain invaded Afghanistan in 1839 which was later repulsed by Afghan tribal fighters.

Subsequent to the Bolshevik revolution, the Russian-Afghan relationship further developed, and eventually a coup d’état in 1978 culminated in the creation of a communist regime in Afghanistan. Skeptical of the succeeding President Hafizullah Amin and foreseeing the danger of repercussions of American influence on him, Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan by December 1979. The Soviet military intervention aggravated the existing hostility among the population, who was already facing violent threats to their centuries-old traditional and cultural lifestyle through the reforms imposed by the communist regime under Soviet guidance. Resistance soon burgeoned and various tribes started taking arms to counter the Russian occupation.

The failures in Iran and Nicaragua in the same year persuaded the forthcoming Reagan administration to transform American foreign policy. By the cessation of its sway in the rule of Reza Shah Pahlavi in Iran, America was devoid of a strategic presence in the region. For regaining the same, the United States supported the resistance of Afghan people. The fighters also received huge sums of money from Saudi Arabia through the networks of Usama Bin Laden. By 1989, owing to the fierce guerilla tactics of the Mujahidin, the Soviet Union was forced to withdraw from Afghanistan.

In the succeeding political uncertainty, the blood-soaked civil war between warlords began which lasted for another seven years. In this stage of turmoil, the group called Taliban mainly comprised of Madrassa students defeated other prominent forces and established a new government titled “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” with Mullah Mohammed Omar as their leader. Even though their rule was having restrictions especially to women, it resulted in short-term stability compared to the terrible years before. The foreign fighters like Usama bin Laden who were discontented and departed due to the civil war returned to the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan perceiving a fertile ground for them. Eventually, the organization called Al Qaeda was formed by these foreign fighters to wage war against America and its allies.

Al Qaeda claimed that the American and Western interventions in various countries are acting as a hindrance for the construction of a stable and robust Islamic rule after the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924. The unconditional support for the state of Israel situated in the middle of Arab countries also provoked the group to declare America as their enemy. The permission to set up an American base in Saudi Arabia on the eve of the gulf war against Iraq infuriated them. Al Qaeda saw the American presence in Saudi Arabia as a cultural and military infringement and declared that it was an obligation of all Muslims to fight America, which they claim is leading a crusade against Islam. The reports of the death of half a million Iraqi children due to the American sanctions added fuel to the flame.

It was in this chaotic atmosphere Al Qaeda hijacked four American planes on Sept. 11, 2001 and attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, both economic and military epicenters of the U.S., killing approximately three thousand people. The attacks shocked the United States. President Bush assured severe punishment to the perpetrators and demanded the Taliban to hand over Usama Bin Laden. Citing lack of evidence and on behalf of Pushtun code of hospitality, the Taliban refused to hand over Bin Laden. They also proposed the establishment of an international tribunal to put Bin Laden on trial. Al Qaeda’s strategy of dragging the United States into direct combat in hostile Afghan terrain was one of the reasons behind the 9/11 attacks. America also saw it as an opportunity to intervene in the region. Some analysts even deduced that America would have invaded Afghanistan even without the occurrence of 9/11, to protect its national interests.

The destruction of monumental Buddhist statues in Bamiyan underlined the disrepute of the Taliban internationally which was politically utilized by the United States. The leading nations generally consented to the American campaign which declared that they are performing the historical duty of rescuing Afghanistan from the claws of the unprogressive Taliban. Thereupon the United States entered Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001.

The Taliban who pulled back to the rural areas swiftly attained support from the local population. The American presence in the country with sporadic military operation made Afghans angry. In brief, America fell into a giant trap. It was a miscalculated decision to overrun a region that gallantly resisted past invaders like Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and other invaders thus achieving the name “graveyard of empires.”

As President Biden announced that the US military mission would end on Aug. 31, the policies of neighboring countries will be crucial in future developments. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has already opposed the American intention to establish military bases in his country. He questioned the logic of erecting bases in Pakistan while the U.S. has failed to win the 20-year-long war from the bases inside Afghanistan. The bases in Pakistan which would bomb Afghans will instill revenge among the tribal fighters who would then target Pakistan in retaliation, Mr. Khan said. The Pashtun domination on either side of the porous Durant line (AF-PAK border) also added to the concern as the Taliban is a Pashtun-dominated entity and half of the Pashtuns are residing in Pakistani areas. The war in Afghanistan will easily spill over into Pakistan which Imran Khan wishes to avoid. Henceforth, the future cooperation of Pakistan to serve American military interests seems substantially inconceivable in the future. The diminishing PAK-U.S. ties can also be attributed to the solid partnerships of Pakistan with China.

Another decisive aspect deserving considerable attention is the discovery of three trillion-dollar worth of untapped resources in Afghanistan. The presence of significant quantities of Rare Earth Elements (REE) used in smartphones, laptops, electric vehicles, wind turbines, solar panels, missile guidance systems, and so forth is a pivotal factor. The actors who obtain the right to extract these resources can beat China’s monopoly. The assurance of American assistance to the future government of Afghanistan should be viewed from this perspective. Only in a peaceful atmosphere, the extraction of resources will happen which will make a win-win situation for the interested countries if executed skillfully. If such a viable resource-sharing agreement is in place, even a small share of the revenue from these resources will suffice Afghanistan to satisfy its basic developmental needs. The integration with the Chinese mega-project of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) would be a significant opportunity for Afghanistan to realize the above goals. But that would invite the fury of the United States too. Even though various hurdles may occur during implementation, a balanced approach by the imminent leadership is inevitable.

Amid the rapid overriding of areas along with the immense population support, the Taliban newly claims control of 85% percent of the Afghan territory. In the wake of the U.S. declaration of withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Kabul government confidently said that they are fully capable of defending the country against the current threats. However, this sounds like grandstanding. Apart from the provincial capitals, the entire country is falling into the grip of the Taliban. Only recently, over a thousand soldiers fled across the border into Tajikistan following the Taliban assault, humiliating the Kabul government. Taliban control of multiple border areas strengthens their stance in the negotiating table diminishing further hopes for the Ashraf Ghani government.

Previously, the Western countries and the media perceived the Taliban as primitive savages and terrorists who had no concern for human rights and peace. But presently, they are immensely communicating with the Western media and active on social media platforms. Their political officials in Doha are portraying themselves as capable diplomats engaging in discussion with numerous countries in the region. Their delegations have met officials from United States, Russia, China, Norway, Switzerland, Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and so on. This demonstrates the increase in the political consciousness of the movement and their enhanced strategy. They are likewise concerned with the political image abroad. Even though they denied the killing of the Indian photojournalist Danish Siddiqui, the apology of the Taliban to the death and further assurance to the protection of journalists reveals this aspect.

Despite having the potential to acquire the provincial capitals, it seems that the Taliban is delaying it as a part of their military strategy. They are avoiding war in populated cities as entering them with force will invite aerial bombings by the Kabul government. This will result in civilian casualties as well as degrade their image. An example in this regard is the recent Taliban retreat from the capital of Badgis after briefly taking the city and freeing its fighters from the central prison. Surrounding the capitals and compelling the Afghan army to surrender without fighting is the modus operandi followed in the time being which might change after the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces.

While many countries are withdrawing their officials and professionals from Afghanistan citing uncertainty, the Taliban has released a statement assuring protection for them. These types of actions are widely employed by the movement for enhancing cooperation with other countries. It is in this context U.K. Defense Minister Ben Wallace said that the country will work with the Taliban if they come to power in Afghanistan. Neither the U.S. calls the group terrorists anymore. Reports are hinting that China too desires positive cooperation with the Taliban owing to the proximity to the CPEC project. The editor-in-chief of the Chinese Global Times stated that making an enemy of the Taliban is not in the interest of China.

In this context, India should reorient its strategy and interests in Afghanistan. In the past decades, India has invested over three billion dollars in various projects in Afghanistan like the 218 km long Zaranj-Delaram highway, Salma Dam, and other projects in the power sector. Contrary to the calls for the reduction of ongoing violence in Afghanistan by the Indian foreign minister, the country simultaneously is backing the incapacitated Afghan government by providing huge amounts of weaponry. Reports suggest that tons of artillery shells have already been delivered by India to the Kabul government. If these reports were true, India is making a serious strategic mistake by acting simply based on the Anti-Pakistan policy in Afghanistan, similar to the past. Even at this moment of imminent Taliban takeover of entire Afghanistan, Indian actions are problematic for the future relations with the successive government in Kabul.

Recently, a Qatari official stated about an Indian high official visit with the Taliban political leadership. Even though Indian officials denied any such meetings, a constructive diplomatic engagement with the Taliban would economically and politically favor India in the long-term considering the recent surge in the Taliban territorial control. To counterbalance the China-Pakistan alliance, India needs to establish concrete relationships with the dominant actor in Afghanistan. If the Kashmir problem is solved amicably, the development of an alternative trade route through Afghanistan and further into Central Asia and Europe will be a catalyst in India’s future economic growth. For this, a favorable relationship with the future government is a necessity for India.

In a geographical and historical sense, Afghanistan is a tough place and Afghanis are tough people. In such places, war is not a solution. Undeniably, the United States and NATO have failed in this misguided invasion, leaving nothing but humiliation. The Taliban once regarded as primitive and uneducated people by the West has finally come to the table and negotiating for peace. Considering this big opportunity, countries of the region should abandon the idea of military means for securing their interests. Through win-win strategies, mutual prosperity and long-lasting stability should be the prime concern transcending the national interests. When technology wages war against mountains, many a time mountains win. And in Afghanistan, it was the Hindu Kush that finally came out as the champion. That is a lesson brutally learned by the British in 19th century. 

Ahmed Sahal. K. P is a Research Assistant at the Institute of Objective Studies, New Delhi, India. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.